The removal of a 70-year-old mahogany will be the first step in several excavations between the Customs House and Fort Christianvaern planned over the next year or so in an attempt to uncover history and artifacts of a little known Danish warehouse and slave market, an audience learned Thursday at the monthly National Park Service lecture at the Danish West India Guinea Company Warehouse.
The tree, behind the 1830 Customs House and adjacent to Hospital Street, will be removed carefully because hundreds of artifacts were recently found in a foot of soil while digging a trench for utilities.
The NPS lecture began as a discussion on a paper presented by Joshua Torres, Christiansted National Historic Site cultural resource manager, and David Goldstein, interpretation and education chief for the Christiansted National Historic Site, at the Society for American Archeology annual meeting in April in Austin, Texas. The event ended with a tour of possible dig locations between Customs House and the fort.
The Christiansted National Historic Site consists of five buildings constructed in the 18th and 19th centuries: Fort Christianvaern, the Steeple Building, the DWI Guinea Company Warehouse, Customs House and the Scale House.
The paper, “Lost in ‘American’s Paradise’: Placing the African Diaspora in the Danish West Indies/U.S. Virgin Islands,” described the 175-year transatlantic African slave trade that transported as many as 100,000 Africans to the U.S. Virgin Islands, especially Christiansted, to work in the sugar fields and factories.
“Archeologists look for vestiges of African history. We’re looking for meaning in our past all the time,” Goldstein said. “We’re all African. That’s where it started. For human beings, it’s the center of the world.”
According to Goldstein, Christiansted was the capital of Denmark’s holdings in the West Indies for a century and a half, and Africans were brought and sold at the Danish West India Guinea Company Warehouse in Christiansted. The warehouse and slave market structures comprising the compound were constructed between 1733-1749 and originally covered as much, if not more, ground than the Christiansted fort, Goldstein said.
At one time the warehouse and market compound included the current building that housed the U.S. Post Office for many years and residences for enslaved Africans working for the Danish government. Responding to a comment from the audience, Goldstein said “royal enslaved” worked for the Danish crown or military and were not the same as the African royalty kidnapped and brought to the island. The “royal enslaved” had special skills such as healers, builders, bakers, blacksmiths and midwives.
The original DWI Guinea market and warehouse changed over the years and, by the 1820s, most of the structures were removed. The Customs House was built on top of some of the buildings. Three buildings remain on the site – Fort Christianvaern, Customs House and the Scale Building. Across the street are the Steeple Building and the remaining warehouse structure.
In 2011 and 2013, archeological projects for utility drainage improvements around the Customs House uncovered hundreds of artifacts. Goldstein showed examples of Afro-Caribbean and Moravian pottery and pipe bowl and stem fragments found near the slave residences. He said Moravian ministers from North Carolina and Pennsylvania used dishware as gifts to help or convert people.
When the mahogany tree is cut down in a few weeks, the stump will remain and be removed carefully to avoid disturbing artifacts, Goldstein said. In the next year, small excavations will be made where building foundations are buried. The public is invited to help plan and excavate the sites, Goldstein said. He can be contacted at 340-773-1460 ext. 233.
“By excavating, we will be more articulate,” Goldstein said. “It’s very interesting. It’s terrifying how interesting it is.”